Irish Bars - A little taste of Ireland

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Following in his parents' footsteps, John McGowan has built up a thriving group of London Irish pubs. Seth Lindejr reports

'I swore,' says John McGowan with a smile, 'that I would never get into the pub game.' It was always going to be an uphill battle. His parents, father from Co Mayo, mother from Co Cork, are renowned among London's Irish community for the quality of the chain of pubs they still run, in one of which, 36 years ago, John himself was born. Though he held out for a while, initially going into the construction business, John eventually succumbed to the inevitable in 1992, converting the office of his construction company in Cricklewood, north-west London, into his first pub. Nine years later, he has 14 Irish pubs and five non-Irish outlets.

Perhaps the secret of John's success has been his ability to tap into all sections of the sizeable north-west London Irish community that is the heartland of his empire. His first pub, The Welcome Inn, was an instant success with the Irish construction workers he knew from his previous business and, like all his Irish pubs, it has a strong west-of-Ireland character (as a child, John spent every summer in Mayo). 'The Irish lads wanted it to feel like home: dark windows, Mayo and Galway girls behind the bar, lots of humour and craic, session music, plus excellent Guinness and Irish whiskeys.' Within a month, John had opened his next outlet, the Hole in the Wall (now the St James's Gate) - a converted bank, just down the road. 'Banks,' he says, 'make ideal pubs. Lots of character, high ceilings and always a 'prominent position on the street.

Initially with finance from the Bank of Ireland, latterly through the Scottish Courage brewery, John quickly expanded, still largely attracting an older, predominantly male, clientele. In 1996, however, following consultation with Guinness UDV, he added four Irish Pub Concept (IPC) pubs to his existing ten Irish bars. 'I wanted something more female-friendly,' he says, 'with a brighter and more colourful look. In the other pubs, the older generation of Irish drinkers weren't bringing in the younger generation. Now, in those four pubs, we get both markets and also many English customers looking for the craic. The ratio of women to men is about 60:40, so it's working.'

Apart from design, the main differences in the four IPC pubs- Clery's Clock, The James Joyce, Ceili on the Green and St James's Gate- are the introduction of branded uniforms, the presentation of pints and a more rounded drinks portfolio. Jack Daniels, Budweiser and Smirnoff Ice, for instance, are big sellers, and eight out of ten pints of Guinness sold are Extra Cold. The increase of spirit measures from 25ml to 35ml-which gives the perception of better value to the customer and better margins to the publican- has proved popular. 'The pubs have much broader appeal now,' John says. 'Customers stay longer, and even hold their parties with us.'

The food offering in new customers, John believes. 'An Irish food company supplies us with ready-made Irish foods, such as mussels in sauce. All our food has a strong Irish identity operating in areas with such a large Irish community, it's easy to source Irish food.' Soda bread supplied by John's mother-in-law, and the Irish breakfast, served from 9am onwards, has proved a major attraction.

Session music remains popular. 'Within Irish communities, you'll always find someone who can play.' John says,' and we usually get four or five lads playing for drinks, and that feeds the craic.' The main music attractions at the IPC pubs are rock bands. 'The younger market are looking for bands playing Irish rock music. We have one band that brings in about 500 people a night. It's like a club, but one that doesn't charge for entrance.' The big TV screens are another big draw - at least two per pub, so they can show a live soccer and GAA game simultaneously if there's a clash.

All McGowan's landlords are recruited from Ireland, which John believes builds loyalty. 'The idea is that they bring their culture with them and immerse themselves in the pub, getting to know the customers over a period of time; they don't hop from one pub to another as they might if recruited locally.' Currently, 65 of his 90 staff are from Ireland, the rest from all over the world where John regularly recruits. What John looks for most of all when recruiting is personality and a good rapport with customers. All his bars are facing the front door for a purpose. 'If the person behind the bar isn't facing the customer as they come in, to welcome them and ask what they are having, the Irish pub doesn't work,' he says.

As the business has developed, John has had to increase his infrastructure. Two area managers, both from Co Cork, have taken some of the workload off him, allowing him to explore the possibility of developing new sites (he's soon to open his fifth IPC pub just outside London), though he still keeps a close eye on his existing pubs, visiting each outlet at least once a week, checking on staffing and other issues. The main benefit of having a group lies in centrally ordered food and drink and the ability to move resources around the pubs as need arises (no pub is more than a mile and a half from its nearest neighbour).

You don't build a pub empire like McGowan's without keeping a keen eye on contemporary trends and constantly evaluating standards and performance. In September last year, John attended the Great Britain launch of the Shaping Success Together programme, a Guinness UDV initiative to help keep Irish Pub Concept pubs ahead of the competition and has since become a participant in the programme. Among the areas that the Guinness UDV research identified as vital in attracting and retaining new customers, particularly women, were air quality and cleanliness. John agreed to a trial period at Clery's Clock to monitor whether the installation of air cleaning equipment and new cleaning products would make a difference.

'You have to be constantly looking for ways to improve your business,' he says, 'and there is no question that the successful Irish pub today must be attractive to women and the younger generation of drinker. The cleaning products service [from Diversey Lever], is achieving high standards,' John says, 'but with a reduced cost. As the products are dispensed in measured pours and not free pour, we are cutting down on waste.' John has now rolled out the products in all of his outlets. 'The initial installation is expensive but you save in the long term; I would expect a total saving of 20 per cent.' 'The successful Irish pub must be attractive to women and the younger generation'

Since Honeywell installed an electrostatic air cleaner and Xpelair ventilation fans at Clery's Clock, John has seen a very positive reaction from customers and staff, and turnover at the pub has gone up 22 per cent.' A smoky atmosphere is very off-putting and it makes it much harder to keep customers through the evening,' John says. 'There is a very noticeable difference in air quality now and no problem at all with tobacco smoke. We are definitely getting more women coming in and they are staying longer. I'm installing the air cleaners in all my outlets. You need just a 2 percent growth to pay for installation.' John was also very impressed with the demonstration on preparing and presenting drinks at the Guinness UDV event. 'It wasn't just the perfect pour for Guinness, it showed what a difference a properly prepared Gordon's and tonic or Smirnoff can make, and how bar staff can be chatting to the customer at the same time.'

Delighted with the way business is going, especially with his IPC pubs, John has plans to open at least another five pubs before exploring other areas of the concept. John is celebrating ten years since his first pub opened with a cut-price drinks promotion that lasts until St Patrick's Day and is in no doubt that he will be celebrating in another ten years' time. For the future, he believes that keeping track of changing trends within the youth market, retaining his appeal to different generations and keeping his pubs attractive to women are the main challenges. 'Today, younger people want brighter, more open pubs, good food, quality drink products and a clean environment. But the Irish personality remains the most important thing. In ten years' time, whatever the other trends may be, the Irish craic will still be with us.'